Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. 😉  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.


PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.



While The Patient Slept (1935)

While The Patient Slept

9c_d_182079_0_WhileThePatientSleptAuthor: Based on a novel of the same name published by Mignon G. Eberhart in 1930. The novel won $5000 and the Scotland Yard prize.  Screenplay by Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow; additional dialogue by Brown Holmes. Eberhart’s novel was acknowledged.

Lee wrote some interesting mystery films, including the screenplay for the well-received Kennel Murder Case, and was nominated for an Oscar in 1931 for adapting the screenplay of Little Caesar.  Solow wrote the screenplay for The League of Frightened Men, a Nero Wolfe screenplay, and Of Mice and Men. And Brown Holmes did the screenplay for two Perry Mason films, TCOT Lucky Legs and TCOT Curious Bride, among many, many others, including The Maltese Falcon.

Other Data:  March 9, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Ray Enright, who started his career working for Matt Sennett and directed 76 titles that no one has ever heard of, including a lot of Westerns.

Cast: Aline MacMahon as Nurse Sarah Keate, an inquisitive nurse who is at the right place at the right time. Guy Kibbee as Detective Lance O’Leary.  Supporting cast includes a bunch of familiar hard-working faces; perhaps the most recognizable is Lyle Talbot.

About this film:

This is the first in a series of  mystery films that is very hard to define, but I’ll do my best. They are six films that are connected because there is a character in each of them who is a nurse named something like Sarah Keate (Sally Keating, Sara Keating, etc.). For the most part, they are somehow based on original murder mysteries by a writer named Mignon G. Eberhart.

While The Patient Slept, 1935, Sarah Keate is played by Aline MacMahon. Lance O’Leary is played by Guy Kibbee.
The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, 1935, Sally Keating is played by Kay Linaker.
Murder of an Aristocrat, 1935, Sally Keating is played by Marguerite Churchill.
The Great Hospital Mystery, 1937, Sarah Keats is played by Jane Darwell.
The Patient in Room 18, 1938, Sara Keate is played by Ann Sheridan. Lance O’Leary is played by Patric Knowles.
Mystery House, 1938, Sarah Keate is played by Ann Sheridan. Lance O’Leary is played by Dick Purcell.

As you can see, this is not a series that has a strong backstory. Aline MacMahon and Jane Darwell were talented, but unbeautiful, hence character actors; the others were young pretty leading ladies.  Sometimes there’s a policeman-boyfriend named Lance O’Leary, who is either middle-aged and comedic or young and handsome. The basic situation is that someone is sick, or has been shot, or is in a wheelchair, and needs a private nurse.  Nurse Keate arrives on the spot, someone is murdered, and a policeman investigates.  Because the nurse is an “impartial” onlooker, she can cooperate with the police to help solve the crime.

vlcsnap-2012-12-24-23h59m38s39Aline MacMahon was instantly familiar to me as having played Ginger Rogers’s best friend in Gold Diggers of 1933. in which she also digs a little gold in the person of — Guy Kibbee. This may be an attempt to pair the two of them as a “kooky detective team” or merely to cash in on any popularity engendered by their previous pairing.  Physically in this film she is tall, large-boned (no, I am not making a euphemism for fat. She appears to be a tall woman with wide hips and long arms and legs) and has a stocky figure. Since Guy Kibbee is a chunky middle-aged unhandsome man, it is permissible by the filmic conventions of 1935 for them to be romantically involved in a comedic way, and they so do here. MacMahon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1944 for Dragon Seed, wherein Katharine Hepburn chewed the scenery in yellowface. (Jane Darwell won the same award in 1940 for playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and now I bet a picture of her face has instantly come to your mind.) I don’t know offhand of any other film in which MacMahon was billed first and this may actually be her only starring vehicle; if you know differently, I’d like to know. I have no taste for going through every one of her long list of IMDB entries to see precisely where she’s billed.

Guy Kibbee  has some detective chops in his own right. He played Jim Hanvey, Detective in 1937 but any projected series went nowhere. (C. Aubrey Smith played this detective created by Octavus Roy Cohen in 1933’s Curtain at Eight, which may have added some brand confusion.) One source described him accurately as the quintessential small-town big shot, and I think that’s deadly accurate. He’s a chunky man full of bombast, ideal to play a policeman who is “in charge”.

The story is actually quite interesting. An elderly man, Mr. Federie, wealthy and with a household full of mostly disagreeable relatives and a few employees, is quite ill and on his deathbed; he has a stroke and requires the services of Nurse Keate. He has called them all together to discuss something, but has been felled before he can speak. Unexpectedly, one of the disagreeable Federies is murdered and the others in the house immediately begin ways to incriminate each other, depending on their history and their motives. Meanwhile, a small green statute of an elephant appears and disappears and is meant as a MacGuffin. After much hubbub and throwing of suspicion, the elephant is revealed to conceal a document which brings home the murder to the criminal, Guy Kibbee apparently asks Nurse Keate to marry him, the invalid wakens and says, “Did something happen?”, and the world is set to rights.

The action of the film takes place entirely within the confines of the patriarch’s mansion and there is a strong element of ODH (Old Dark House) grafted into this straightforward plot, with interesting and appealing results. There is also a strong element of gentle humour in the course of this film that is quite appealing.

The ODH elements are familiar to anyone who grew up with the parodies of the genre so beautifully done by a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons. You’ll know it immediately; a dimly-lit mansion filled with secret panels out of which emit clutching hands, draperied entrances which flutter to show the exit of a mysterious cloaked figure, and the painting on the wall whose eyes literally follow you around the room, because someone is in a secret passage behind the painting watching you. Well, quite a few elements of the classic ODH are here. There are draperied entrances, and the invalid has a dark-paneled two-storey bedroom (I know, right? Like we should all have a minstrel gallery above the four-poster) complete with secret passage off the closet leading to a secret windowless room. Plus, there actually is a clutching hand behind the draperied entrance. All that’s missing is the eyeless portrait but, really, they had to have room for the murder plot.

As far as the humour goes, I give it full marks. This is 1935, and a comedy film frequently consisted of a bunch of odd characters jammed together into a flimsy plot, and good actors making us laugh at their characteristic antics.  The comedy didn’t arise organically from the characters combining with the plot, as we have come to expect these days now that films are much, much more expensive to make. Here, indeed, the writing is a lot better than it has to be.  Mignon Eberhart provides the raw materials — a nurse, a detective, and a house full of relatives who hate each other and want to inherit. But the screenwriters have transformed this material in a way that would not have disgraced films of the period that had a LOT more money spent on them.

Indeed, the screenwriters take the defects of the basic murder plot and turn them into virtues. Ngaio Marsh is well known for a huge sag in the middle of many of her books — after the mise en scene, everything grinds to a halt while the police bring in one suspect at a time and interrogate them, partly to complicate the plot and partly to distinguish them in the eyes of the reader. Well, here, since everyone has been called to the mansion to visit old Mr. Federie, immediately after Nurse Keate starts to work, everyone in the house troops in, one after the other, and asks to be informed first when Mr. Federie is again able to speak. By the time the last one arrives, Nurse Keate cuts her off, tells her she’ll contact her when Mr. Federie comes to, and ejects her unceremoniously. This takes a necessity and makes it into a virtue, and elegantly so. The script is full of such nice little touches.

At one point I actually chuckled aloud, which for the average viewer is probably the equivalent of a belly laugh.  (I’m frequently too focused on the structure of what I’m seeing to react to the emotions of it.) I’ve seen this film a couple of times before, and this clever little joke still caught me by surprise. Kibbee and his assistant are pounding on the bedroom door of a disagreeable and slightly dotty woman trying to persuade her to come forward and testify.  She flatly refuses. Kibbee remarks that he only has trouble getting men to talk; women he cannot persuade to stop.  He then calls through the door, “This is your last chance to tell us what you know!” A moment later — “I’ll be right out!”

As noted above, there is a small sub-theme of Kibbee and MacMahon becoming romantically involved. I don’t think anyone takes it seriously; I don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously. It was merely a sop to the conventions, in the sense that in 1935 if an unmarried man and an unmarried woman were to work closely together on a murder case, they would either be romantically involved leading to marriage, or it would be a social mis-step.

I liked this film quite a bit and recall it, and its fellows, fondly. This is an example of the kind of work turned out by the studios at the B level; this is the work of a group of professionals turning out disposable entertainment in large quantities on a tight schedule, much like what would happen in the early days of television. And yet it is much better than it needed to be.  It has intelligence and charm and humour. It has a great deal of minor-league acting talent and it’s even very competently directed. The mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long, since it primarily depends upon the clue in the green elephant — once you find that, it’s all over. In the meantime, in the classic pattern, everyone looks guilty as hell for about five minutes each, and everything is rolled up in a tidy 67 minutes.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available; it’s been released by Warner Classics.  Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  Since I’m sure that almost no one recognizes that Sara Keate, Sarah Keate, and Sally Keating are meant to be the same person, it is highly unlikely that a uniform edition will be coming out any time soon, but you never know. In the meantime, I recommend the fun of tracking down the whole set; a couple will occupy you to obtain them.

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood/Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood, by Ron Backer

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood & Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood

Ron Backer, whom the jacket describes as “an attorney who has previously written for law reviews and other legal publications.  An avid fan of both mysteries and movies, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”.

Publication Data:  The 1940s volume is copyright 2010 and the 1930s volume, 2012.  I imagine the delay is because the 1930s volume is somewhat larger and covers more material.

About these books:

I’m at the stage of life where, rather than waste money and effort by buying me a book I read two years ago and already own two copies of, my family and close friends ask me what I want for Christmas and birthdays. I was glad to advise them that I was aware of these two volumes and would they kindly show up under the tree?

I’m glad I asked for them.  This is an area about which I can claim to be well-informed, and to me these volumes were an interesting gloss on my own collection and even extended my knowledge a bit. I think for the less experienced collector they would represent an excellent way of systematically approaching the viewing/acquiring of this sub-genre. And, as the TV pitchman says, “Makes a great Christmas gift!”

bk9901The 1930s volume covers 22 series, including some major series like the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Nick and Nora Charles, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto, and some decidedly minor efforts like Bill Crane and Barney Callahan. The 1940s volume discusses 19 series, most of which are by now at the B level: series like The Saint, The Falcon, Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne. There is a significant body of work presented in the two volumes. I have to say that Mr. Backer has done an enormous service by not only collecting information about these films but giving us his opinions. To be sure, I disagreed with some of what he had to say. But Backer approaches these films in the same way I do, and so I found these volumes provoked me into deeper thought. Not content to merely passively absorb, he follows the plot and thinks about it afterwards, trying to notice if the plot is taut or holey, if characterization is consistent and believable, even whether the mystery is fair or unfair. Then the reader who has himself seen these films has the luxury of agreeing or disagreeing.

One excellent focus that Backer has brought to the books is that he has gone to some trouble to trace source materials. His observation is that series of the 1930s were usually based on books, whereas series of the 1940s were frequently based on other source material; comic books, radio programmes, even original screenplays. I agree with this and it’s a fascinating little eddy in the broader stream of branded product that was coming into being, the beginnings of characters like Ellery Queen and Simon Templar who existed across multiple media platforms. And of course Sherlock Holmes, the original portable media brand, and we see here one of its most famous extensions discussed extensively here with the dozen Basil Rathbone films using the character.

Backer also has some skill at working out the relationships among films in a series; when he says that such-and-such is the best or worst in its series, he gives reasons and I tended to agree with them. My problems are concerned with the very limited amount of thought he gives to how these series compare as series — there is little or no attempt to compare the merits of one to another, which would have been an interesting exercise.  I think the thing that was the largest stumbling block for me was at the very outset, as I immediately hit the assertion that the Golden Age mystery finds its modern equivalent in the cozy. (I regret that I cannot identify precisely where in the volumes I found this; I was too horrified to make a note.) Sorry, sir; I’m prepared to dispute your opinions about the relative merit or a film, but that assertion is simply indefensible. It’s like suggesting that the tigers of old are the same as the housecats of today; Golden Age mysteries and the modern cozy are two different species entirely. I had to conclude that the author had misunderstood one genre or the other, and that left me a little bit less willing to accept his views on filmic subgenres.

There are also a couple of omissions that I noted — although he excludes non-Hollywood mysteries in a series, I do think Wilfred Hyde-White’s appearance in the lost Philo Vance film The Scarab Murder Case is worth a mention. And there is not the depth of rich detail that I have come to appreciate about the ways in which actors morph and segue within and without such series; there’s possibly a book in itself, tracing the paths of actors like Nat Pendleton, Patricia Morison, or Howard Huber as they appear in many mysteries in different roles. Here he merely observes that so-and-so appeared in two different series, without appreciating how genre-based typecasting meant that Nat Pendleton could appear as different policeman-sidekicks in different series without having to do any characterization work to differentiate himself, because the audience “knew” Pendleton’s image as an earnest, hardworking doofus.

One aspect I really appreciated was the exhaustive research that’s gone into the details of some very obscure films. I have to confess that although I have seen almost all of the films mentioned in these volumes, and lack access to the same handful that Backer was unable to screen, I was delighted to find a reference to a little-known series that I had never heard of, and pointers to the existence of a couple of films in small series of which I was not aware. (I have now completed my Thatcher Colt collection and thank Mr. Backer for informing me of the existence of The Night Club Lady; to me, immediately the best of the series and a darn good mystery to boot.)

Backer restricts his efforts to series containing three or more films, and I can’t say that’s wrong; every author of a reference book has to draw the line somewhere. By and large this policy excludes little of value, but the few mandated omissions of significant films truly seem to me to harm the scholarship. It might have been wise to include such short-run series as Nero Wolfe, whose two films are significant in the early history of mystery films, as are the two Jim Hanvey films. (I add some months after this post was initially mounted that I would like to have seen Mr. Backer take on the 12 mystery short films written by S.S. Van Dine, whose series characters would have benefited from his interest.) I do wish the author had turned his attention to Batman, which franchise seems to me to qualify. It took me a while to come up with the name of a franchise that did well in other media platforms but only generated one movie: Mr. and Mrs. North. I suggest that even this singleton movie might be worthwhile in a book devoted to series. But without thinking hard, I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.  Perhaps the crossover mystery movie series of the 1930s and 1940s will be Backer’s next topic. I’d like to see him tackle the light-comedy-married-couple-as-detectives sub-genre in more detail, but perhaps only because I’m interested as of late. He does good scholarship and I’d like to see more of it.

All things considered, if you are interested in mystery film series of this era, these two volumes will form the cornerstone of your understanding. I think they’re currently the definitive work.

Notes For the Collector:

These trade paperbacks were ordered as Christmas gifts for me, as noted above, and cost about $55 each to get from the U.S. to Canada. Abebooks gives a range of 25 roughly equivalent prices for “new” and “as new” copies. Yes, that seems expensive, but over a lifetime of having books come and go through my hands, I have to say that the only books I will now not part with are reference books; they’re always, always worth whatever I paid for them and more.  I can’t imagine that these volumes are scarce at the present moment, but like most such offerings they may disappear and not attain reprint. (There is certainly no prospect of an updated edition since there is almost no chance of new material coming to light.) The publisher is McFarland, a large and well-known company, and I am slightly less sanguine about the continued availability of these volumes because of it. Had the publisher been the author himself, as is more common these days, these might be printed upon demand and available as first editions indefinitely. So if this sort of material is important to your scholarship, I urge you to get these books before you have to pay double their cover price in the aftermarket.